Quoted in the Courier Mail: ‘There are no winners here’ and ‘Three secret letters, “Rot in hell bitch”’, regarding defamation action by former school principal

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Byline: VANDA CARSON, GREG STOLZ & JEREMY PIERCE REPORT

Judge's dire warning as tempers boil over in 'pig-snorter' of a trial with huge ramifications

IT WAS one of the most extraordinary legal showdowns in Queensland's history. Tamborine Mountain State High principal Tracey Brose had issued proceedings against eight parents after they posted comments about her online that she claimed were defamatory and ruined her reputation.

Some had settled the case, other parents and the principal refused to back down. Mediations failed, tensions boiled over, families were left on the brink and now, in the Southport District Court, the reasons for Mrs Brose's four-month suspension from the hinterland school, which sparked the parents' social media posts, were a huge issue of contention.

THREE SECRET LETTERS IF ONLY they could get their hands on three letters.

Aged care nurse Charmaine Proudlock's barrister, Michael de Waard, and the self-represented Donna and Miguel Baluskas were determined to expose the Education Department letters outlining the reasons for Tracey Brose's suspension in 2016 - which to this day remain a closely guarded secret.

Mr de Waard argued the documents would prove his client's case, that Mrs Brose was "a bad principal". The letters would show Mrs Brose's reputation was "already ruined" before the Facebook posts were made, Mrs Baluskas said.

"How can we be responsible for ruining her reputation if she didn't already have a good reputation?" she told the court.

Her husband said the documents would help prove that "everything I said in my publication on Facebook is true".

"If she (Mrs Brose) has nothing to hide, why is she keeping it a secret?" he asked Judge Catherine Muir.

Judge Muir ordered the three letters be handed over, though Mrs Brose's barrister flagged an immediate appeal to Queensland's highest court.

Before Mrs Brose could be interrogated over the documents, her lawyers reached a settlement with Mrs Proudlock. The case against the aged care nurse was discontinued and she did not have to pay Mrs Brose a cent.

The Baluskases and quietly-spoken grocery merchandiser Laura Lawson were left to battle on alone, without lawyers.

The parents took different approaches to defending the proceedings. Some denied certain imputations alleged by Mrs Brose, while others claimed their posts had only been read by a small number of readers and not as widely as Mrs Brose alleged. They all pleaded the defence of triviality, while Mr Baluskas and Ms Lawson also raised various other defences.

Hours of emotional evidence were punctuated by moments of high farce. Mrs Brose claimed the Baluskases made "pig-snorting noises" at her during a preliminary court hearing and that Mr Baluskas had placed intimidating notes with the words "wink-wink" in the letterbox of her home.

The pig noises, the court was told, occurred when Mrs Baluskas saw Mrs Brose in the courthouse toilets.

Mrs Baluskas insisted she was "not a pig-snorter" and asked the principal to demonstrate the alleged noise. Over the objections of her own barrister, the principal snorted like a pig from the witness box.

'ROT IN HELL BITCH' MRS Brose launched her marathon legal case in a bid, she said, to restore her good reputation. But at the end of the second week, as the trial dragged on, a clearly exasperated Judge Muir issued an ominous warning from the bench.

No one, it seemed, was going to come out of this mess well.

In an extraordinary address, Judge Muir urged all parties to try to reach a settlement outside court - because if she was forced to a judgment, none of them was likely to be happy with the result.

"At this point I can tell you that I expect my findings will not reflect well on any of the parties in this case," she said.

"I expect that my findings may not reflect the outcome that any of the parties in this case are hoping for. I expect I will be making findings of credit that will reflect adversely potentially on all of you." Judge Muir said Mrs Brose had given evidence that all she wanted was an apology and an undertaking that the alleged defamation would not be repeated.

"It seems to me timely and prudent to all of you to take some time over the weekend to review your expectations about this case because as I have said, the outcomes may not be what any of you are hoping for," she said. "I want to encourage you all to engage, if you can, in some meaningful negotiations in an attempt to resolve this matter." But the words fell on deaf ears. Within minutes of the court adjourning, raised voices echoed from a meeting room in the court complex as attempted peace talks between Mrs Brose's lawyers and the defendants exploded.

There would be no truce.

The legal battle in Courtroom 13 - Brose v Baluskas & others - raged on for another fortnight. On a dramatic last day of the trial, the court was rocked by wild scenes, with a wailing Mrs Baluskas collapsing at the bar table during her closing submission.

Mrs Baluskas told Judge Muir she stood to "lose everything". With her voice quivering, she said she "shouldn't even be here".

"I'm done your honour," she sobbed before collapsing in her chair at the bar table.

Her husband tried to console her while her elderly mother, who had watched every minute of every day, rushed forward from the public gallery to comfort her distraught daughter, draping an arm around her shoulder as she helped her from the room.

"Rot in hell you bitch," a supporter of Mrs Baluskas said during the chaotic scenes. Mrs Baluskas' hysterical shrieks were so loud they carried clearly to the courtroom through two sets of doors as her husband attempted to start his own closing argument.

Mrs Brose had initially sought $1.2 million in damages, $150,000 from each of the eight former parents of students at her school.

When some parents settled, the figure ballooned to $220,000 for those remaining. But by trial's end, with just four defendants left standing, her demand was more modest.

Mrs Brose wanted a maximum $110,000 in damages from Mr Baluskas, claiming he had continued his slurs even after he was sued. She asked Judge Muir to award her no more than $95,000 in damages from Mrs Baluskas and $70,000 from Ms Lawson.

Ms Lawson told the court: "I have nothing to give the plaintiff. My car is 18 years old. I have no assets to sell." SHOULD IT HAVE COME TO THIS?

NEARLY four years after the rush of petty comments and name-calling on Facebook, Judge Muir was troubled as she pondered the case.

"How do I unravel this?" she asked Mrs Brose's barrister. "(Your client) talks about hurt and distress but there is no medical evidence in this case at all. There were other circumstances at the time including the suspension.

"For a teacher of 19 years getting a letter saying she was going to be suspended and it not having any effect on her, is most surprising I must say." Judge Muir questioned the inconsistencies in settlements reached with defendants and why some people who posted disparaging remarks online were not pursued at all.

"What do I make of the decision to settle with the seventh defendant (Mrs Proudlock) - who just happened to be the only one who was represented, for nil, when their barrister was about to cross-examine the plaintiff in court?" Judge Muir said.

It is a case which has captivated watchers and, outside the courtroom, raised uncomfortable questions.

Could this legal drama, heartache and ruinous lawyers' picnic have been avoided? The slurs were serious and Mrs Brose was entitled to her day in court. It is now nearly four years later and all three remaining defendants say they have no money left.

Even if Mrs Brose wins the bitterly-fought case, will her victory simply be pyrrhic?

Both sides have spent so much money, how could there possibly be a real winner at all?

Was a courtroom the best forum to solve this dispute?

And what of the culture of vitriol seen so often online?

Once, when a defamation case was launched in an Australian court, it was more than likely that a media company or publisher was the target.

Increasingly, it is now private citizens who have made comments online that find themselves clogging courtrooms across the country facing ruinous bills for their own legal costs, let alone any damages they may have to pay.

The modern cases have prompted a review of defamation law in Australia, which will consider whether to introduce a "serious harm test".

If introduced, the law would force plaintiffs like Mrs Brose to prove they suffered serious harm as a result of the defamation.

The Brose case has also exposed the naivety of many millions of Aussies who casually comment on social media every day - unaware of the potential consequences if they overstep the mark.

Law academic Michael Douglas said the Tamborine case was "another indication that the general public probably misunderstand the risks of criticising people on social media".

"Anyone with something spicy to say online could end up facing a lawsuit," he said.

"If you are sued in defamation, it is up to you to prove what you said was true. This can be trickier than it sounds. Get the best lawyer you can.

"Even if you win, it can make your life miserable.

"Next time you want to have a go at someone online, take a breath, and consider whether you'd be better off just letting it go." Mr Douglas said defamation laws were changing, but it would not necessarily protect people from cases like the Mt Tamborine saga.

"The balance will be shifted to make it harder to successfully sue someone in defamation. However, even once those reforms go through, we will still see a lot of cases just like this," he said.

And what of Queensland's Education Department?

Mrs Brose was reinstated to her job four months after being suspended. Tamborine Mountain State High School had one of the highest expulsion rates in Queensland before the bitter row.

In 2014, 23 students were expelled or "excluded" from Tamborine Mountain, at a time when just 704 students were enrolled.

While Mrs Brose may not have been involved in all 23 cases, of schools having a comparable student base, just one recorded more exclusions, while many of the schools with higher expulsion figures had double or even triple the number of total enrolments.

Dozens of public high schools across the state did not record any exclusions during the same period. The same number, 23, was the total number of exclusions at Tamborine Mountain in the two years after Mrs Brose was reinstated.

What will Judge Muir's warning mean for Mrs Brose's career after the judgment is handed down? The judge has flagged "making findings of credit that will reflect adversely potentially on all" involved in the trial.

If Judge Muir finds issues with Mrs Brose's credibility, can she simply walk back into the grounds of Tamborine Mountain as principal unscathed? Education authorities have adamantly refused to weigh into the case.

A COMMUNITY DIVIDED AN ECLECTIC mix of artists, dreamers, European expats, young homeowners and nine-to-fivers trying to escape the suburban sprawl and rat race of the Gold Coast, there is no "typical" Mount Tamborine - itself a jumble of population pockets spread across a mountain rising 500m above the bright lights of the Glitter Strip.

It is popular for weekend day-trippers who stroll the famous Gallery Walk shopping strip, loading up on sweets from the inevitable fudge factories or sampling wines from nearby vineyards.

In winter, tourists take advantage of the colder climate to stay in romantic bed-and- breakfast properties, sipping hot chocolate by the side of a roaring fire.

The case of Mrs Brose certainly has plenty of people fired up on the mountain. Others, not so much.

In fact, the case is so polarising, opinion is even divided over whether opinion is divided.

"It's not something people talk about," said one shop owner adamantly. "I've never had a customer even mention it." However, another wary trader said it was very much a topic of conversation - just not in public. "People don't talk about it openly," the trader said.

"The people who have talked about her (Mrs Brose) openly are in court." One long-time Mount Tamborine resident whose children attended the high school said many locals were afraid to voice their views for fear of being sued.

"We're just a small community and it's a bit too close for comfort," he said. "The mountain is certainly divided. Tracey Brose has a lot of support but there are obviously people who have crossed her path that haven't been happy.

"Because people naively posted things on Facebook, got sued and lost their homes, no one really wants to say too much because it could be considered libel." Another long-time Mt Tamborine local said: "I personally don't like her." "The (school) parents are definitely divided - there are those that think she's great and others who absolutely hate her," the local said.

"There's no in-between in terms of the way people on the mountain feel about her." One school parent said she had never had any problems with Mrs Brose and believed the social media attacks on the principal "got very vitriolic".

"Facebook is not something where you can just blurt out all sorts of stuff indiscriminately," she said. "We are a small community and it's relatively friendly, and this really has been a divisive issue.

"There are too many 'helicopter parents' who take all the emotional trauma of their children on themselves.

"Kids have to learn to deal with their own stuff without their parents fighting every battle for them." CAN I BORROW MONEY, SON?

ON NOVEMBER 5, four days after the defamation trial finally finished, Mr Baluskas was back in court. This time the case was criminal.

In Beenleigh District Court he pleaded guilty to threatening violence at night and wilful damage over an incident at the Brose family home. He was hit with a suspended nine-month jail sentence.

Forty-eight hours later he and his wife were declared bankrupt with just $350 to their names, after failing to pay a bill for Mrs Brose's legal costs they owed from pre-trial arguments.

In the days following, Mr Baluskas had to borrow $15 from his young son to fill his motorbike with petrol to ride the 60km to work in Brisbane.

The bed Mrs Baluskas now climbs into each night is in a rental home in Nerang. She is 47. Her husband 49.

Nearly four years after that fateful night on Facebook, they fear they are simply too old to financially start again. They are resigned to never again being able to buy their own home.

Judge Muir is expected to hand down her judgment in the defamation case early this year.

"How can we be responsible for ruining her reputation if she didn't already have a good reputation?" Defendant Donna Baluskas "I have nothing to give the plaintiff. My car is 18 years old. I have no assets to sell" Defendant Laura Lawson "I expect my findings will not reflect well on any of the parties in this case" Judge Catherine Muir "I borrowed from my dad, remortgaged my house, borrowed from my little brother, all to try and reinstate my reputation. All it would take is an apology and an undertaking (not to repeat the defamation)"Tracey Brose giving evidence in court

Period3 Feb 2020

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